Cycling is not the new golf

Out for a ride, no deals done

Since the New Times Times published a story on cycling and business, the wave of “cycling is/isn’t the new golf” articles has hit the interwebs.

Let me set you all straight, cycling is NOT the new golf.

First, my bonafides:

I like to ride a road bike silly distances, often up hills, for no specific reason.

Also, I’m a tech executive in a Fortune 50 company with final decision authority. To sales people, I’m the goose that lays golden eggs. Being in technology makes me even more interesting to salespeople because I can say things to corporate purchasing like “we’re going to single source this item from Yoyodyne because it’s the only one we can get 40Gb/s Ethernet working over a 2km single-mode fiber link with the gateways we bought from HugeCorp…”. Corporate purchasing will say “Sure… OK… Whatever…” and tens of thousands of dollars flow, without them trying to get me to bid it out to dozens of other vendors.

People have been trying to sell stuff to me for over 20 years and I’ve seen many of the techniques used by salespeople to make me choose a specific product. By far, the most widely used technique is the salesperson trying to develop a personal relationship with me by any way they can so that I will favor them in the decision to buy. Ideally, they want me to feel like I ‘owe’ them the sale.

Typical inbox with requests from vendors

Typically it starts with a vendor buying lunch. In theory, the exec is so busy, that they can only meet at lunch, thereby optimizing time. Bullshit. It’s a free meal and the exec gets their ego boosted as the vendor fawns over them.

Dinners can be even more over the top with popular restaurants, wildly expensive bottles of wine, and other unconstrained spending that is un-monitored by anything other than the executive’s own personal ethics. If the customer is a wine snob, no bottle is too expensive. If they love sushi, no amount of toro is too much.

It’s the path of a legal bribery system that occurs everywhere in business and politics. It’s so endemic in business that big companies have to set-up elaborate rules and processes to minimize (but not eliminate) the amount a vendor can give.

You can accept a gift, but it must be worth under $75.
Total amount of gifts per vendor per year must be under $250.
You can attend a sporting event with free tickets, but the vendor must be there.

Which brings us to golf.

Playing golf costs money. The nicer the course, the more it costs. For those that don’t golf, ‘greens fees’ (the price to play) can range into hundreds of dollars. Toss in a few boxes of balls, drinks on the course, and lunch/dinner and you are talking about a lot of money. The exec can’t or doesn’t want to pay this, but they do want to play at the Bushwood Country Club, so they accept a round of golf to “do business” and “get to know” the vendor.

This puts you in the vendor’s pocket if you are an exec. Like politicians saying that donations don’t affect their decision making, some executives will say that a round of golf won’t affect their decision making. Bullshit.

At some level after receiving a gift of any sort, you feel a sense of debt or obligation, and this is what salespeople are counting on. Because it works. Luxury boxes at sporting events, paid trips for speeches at luxury junket destinations, ‘demo’ hardware given for ‘testing’ purposes are all standard practices in sales BECAUSE IT WORKS.

Which brings us to cycling.

To go for a ride, it doesn’t cost anything. Sure, you show up on your expensive carbon fiber & titanium machine wearing expensive kit made from exotic wool from Iceland with a slew of electronic gadgetry strapped on, but the ride itself costs nothing.

There are no road fees to pay or expensive cocktails on a ride. Food is typically coffee & a donut or a can of Coke & a burger. There just isn’t the same scenario of a ride being a special treat, like a trip to the golf course can be.

A typical post-ride lunch

The core process of vendors paying for things their customers like just doesn’t occur. The vendor is doing anything for you that you you ‘owe’ them for. The sense of obligation never forms.

Even time to talk business is interrupted with the actual exertion of cycling, the calls of ‘car back’, and the inevitable separation of cyclists of different fitness. Compared to golf where you spend ~3 hours in roaming in two carts constantly chatting, cycling is a nightmare for getting critical information to and from the customer. Worse, the customer can lose respect for you if you aren’t really a cyclist or break one of the many cycling etiquette rules that infect the minds of riders.

That doesn’t mean the sales people don’t try. I’ve had vendors chat me up about riding, want to go out together, and even once been given a company’s branded cycling kit to be a riding billboard for them. But cycling vendors are the exception.

Golf days are within reach of every salesperson, regardless of fitness level or skill. All that’s required is a credit card and willingness to put of the customer for several hours of bad golf and inane conversation in hope of a sale.

Now, in the reality distortion field known as Silicon Valley, where normal logic and reason don’t apply, there may be some strange rituals that occur resulting in very rich people giving money to mildly rich people in an elaborate gambling system known as “venture capital”, but in the rest of the world, cycling is not the new golf.

My best guess is that business and cycling writers, pressed for story ideas, occasionally recognize that some new business leaders like to ride bicycles and that this is of historic significance and the meme surfaces on the web again.

In the real world, golf remains golf, an essential sales tool, and a perceived benefit to many ‘final decision makers’, in a way that cycling can never be.

Cycling is not the new golf.

Please, New York Times, stop writing this article every year.

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